Thursday, 29 September 2011

Things Will Arise

One of the curious things about all the meditation programs I’ve attended over the years is how little I actually remember of them. I have passed months in shrine rooms, listening. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours. Yet what I recall seems barely enough to fill a few blank pages.

Reggie Ray saying, “Life is strange; good thing we don’t have to think about it.” Sakyong Mipham urging, “We need to practice appreciation for our lives.” These and a handful of other sound bites seem the sum total of what I am able conjure upon demand. “Just think about that for a moment,” Pema Chodron once commented. Indeed.

Perhaps my favorite clip - certainly one of the most resonant - was offered by a Shambhala teacher named Alyn Lyon. She was leading a weekend retreat here in Victoria. The focus of this I, of course, cannot remember. Likewise for the vast majority of what she said over those days. I do, however, vividly recall this: “When things arise during meditation - and things will arise…

She gave these last words ominous emphasis. She lifted her walking cane as she uttered them, tapping it on the smooth wood floor underfoot. “- things will arise…” Though I cannot recollect what came either before or after this phrase, I remember the reaction deep in my bones. I was terrified.

If you are anything like me you came to this practice, at least in part, wanting to stop things arising in your life. Back in those early days, there was a long list of things I wanted to stop coming my way: frustration, disappointment, confusion, fear, shame, irritation. I had some very interesting ways of working to realize this desire during meditation.

I used to visualize myself surrounded by a high brick wall when practicing. I would thump down on a cushion, fuss about in an effort to get as comfortable as the situation allowed. Then I would close my eyes and encircle myself with a high and, I hoped, impenetrable barrier. This in place, I was ready to begin.

Unsurprisingly, this barricade was rarely up to the task. For this reason, I had developed at least three other strategies to realize my objective - the point, I thought, of the practice altogether. The first involved returning to my visualization and fortifying the wall, making it higher, thicker. On a few occasions, I even put barbed wired atop this barricade. The second strategy was to drown out whatever had the audacity to pierce my protection by silently singing Paul Simon’s ‘I Am A Rock’ over and over. The last? To simply get up from my cushion and call it a day.

Needless to say, I didn’t have a clue what Alyn Lyon was talking about at the time. “When things arise during meditation,” she started, “- and things will arise.” Here one can replace Paul Simon’s accompaniment with the sound of her staff striking the floor at each word. Bam! Bam! Bam!

In my own case, I don’t think personal understanding of Ms. Lyon’s point was aided by the mental image I carried of meditators. Just look at them, after all: Hour after hour they sit there and nothing is happening! Sure time-lapse photography might reveal something, but not much. At sixteen minutes we might see someone scratch their nose. At thirty-one, a couple folks may uncross their legs. Around forty-nine minutes one person might nod toward sleep. Generally, however, nothing much seems to be going on.

Appearances, though, can be deceiving.

I used to be a fan of Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe. This is a CBC radio show that started its life as part of Peter Gzowski’s iconic Morningside program. It initially aired Mondays at 11:30, I believe. The Cafe world was richly compelling. The adventures of Dave and Morley, and all the other wonderful characters McLean conjured, were such that I rarely missed an episode.

One tale saw Dave, family patriarch and owner of the ‘Vinyl Cafe Record Store’ - official motto: “We may not be big, but we’re small” - gifted with a rare weekend alone. Morely had taken the kids to Florida. There was no one to remind him of household chores, to ask for rides and money, to fight for possession of the television. He was alone.

For a while it was great. Dave went to bed early and woke giddy. He bought some wine and rented a movie. In a moment of pure inspiration, he picked up an old Beatles album, Hard Day’s Night, and put it on the turntable. In McLean’s words: “Dave smiled, turned up the volume, sat down at the table and poured himself another glass of wine. After all these years. The music washed over and through him. He played the album twice and then got down on his hands and knees and pawed about and finally found Abbey Road...He staggered to bed after midnight.”

For the next week Dave’s elation continued, buoyed by the sounds of an ever-present radio. Not CBC anymore, but radio CHUM “hits of the fifties and sixties - the music of his life.” He listened to ‘Kodachrome’ and Neil Sedaka, Lesley Gore and the Shangri-Las. He immersed himself in an endless, blissful flow until Friday morning when it all, quite suddenly, screeched to a halt.

For on Friday morning while shaving, Dave found a blemish. “A small red dot,” McLean tells us, “had appeared on his face overnight.” A pimple apparently, but then, as Dave was about to leave for work, it occurred to him. “He was forty-five years old. Forty-five year olds didn’t get pimples. They got skin cancer.“ His holiday was over: “Dave couldn’t get the blemish out of his mind.”

This is how it goes. We’re walking down a busy street or immersed in something at work. Maybe we’re enjoying a wonderful weekend alone when - seemingly out of nowhere, with no obvious reason or rhyme - there is happiness, longing, hatred, fear, love, boredom, loneliness, lust. There are thoughts of old friends, tonight’s dinner, the coming holiday. Even, it seems, of cancer.

Things, in other words, arise. And often - very often - they grab us.

So it was with Dave. He could not get cancer out of his mind. He tried negotiating. He tried rationalizing. In the end, he just had to do something. So he went to the drugstore. He picked up a tube of Clearasil on the off chance his blemish was really a pimple.

It was on his way to the cashier to pay for this that Dave saw the blood-pressure chair. He decided to get a reading just in case and got trapped. During the reading, the inflated cuff locked Dave in place. It wasn’t until the fire department arrived and a crowd had gathered and the jaws of life were put to use that Dave was finally freed.

Yes, this is how it goes. Things do arise and, for most of us, the response is to get busy. We think a lot or maybe find something to do - like go to the drugstore for a tube of pimple cream. It’s a coping mechanism, this. A way of deflecting the discomfort we feel when those pesky ‘things’ show up. It’s not always a very helpful coping mechanism, truth be told. Often, as with Dave, we end up getting oursleves a whole lot of trouble.

Alyn Lyon was reminding us that the same is true for meditators. Meditation is not an escape; things will arise, like it or not. So all those pictures we’ve seen of people sitting cross-legged, eyes lowered, all those times we’ve thought to ourselves, ‘They look so peaceful’? Don’t be fooled. Just like Dave, those folks are likely going through the wringer. Anger, envy, embarrassment, shame. All of it. Thoughts of past loves, future liaisons, fights at work, and make-ups at home. Even, ‘Maybe I have cancer.’

Unlike Dave, though, those meditators are not going to go running to the drugstore in order to distract themselves from what’s coming up. Perhaps some will build imaginary walls around their seats - an effort that will, in the end, prove utterly futile. Maybe some will sing every Paul Simon song they know - also an exercise in futility. For the most part, thought, they will sit there in the company of whatever’s arising, waiting to discover what might lurk behind the almost irresistible urge to get up and get the hell out.

Which brings to mind another of those sound bites I recall from all my hours at programs and teachings. This from Martin White, a teacher here in Victoria. He once claimed to be able to identify the serious meditators in any crowd. “They’re the ones,” he said with a trickster’s grin, “who look a little bit crazy.”


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Friday, 23 September 2011

The End of the World

REM broke up. Thirty-one years after their first gig, the little band that could has called it a day. Though, like many, I have not followed the group too closely since the departure of drummer Bill Berry in 1997, the announcement raised some sadness. No small measure of sadness, actually.

For almost fifteen years, the partnership of Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe held a big place in my life. A friend first introduced us. Sitting in his car, he slipped in a tape. “Listen to this,” he said. It was Murmur. We played the whole thing from start to finish. The next day I raced down to the record store to get myself a copy.

Unlike the Beatles, REM was a band of my time. Unlike Bruce Cockburn, they did not enter my life with a sizable back catalogue waiting to be explored, taking some pressure off any anticipation I felt about the next release. Unlike the Smiths, the band was not near the end when that first listen took place. REM was unlike a lot of things, actually, and this, in many ways, made them mine.

What a ride it was! From a tiny college band that only fringe-dwellers had heard of to million-selling superstars, the arc of their career through that decade and a half was exhilarating. The release of Reckoning - my first new album! A grainy promo clip on Friday Night Videos. Interviews in Rolling Stone. Shows in the Pacific Northwest. I didn’t go, but just knowing they were near was a thrill. Confusion over Document. A first viewing of the amazing video for ‘Losing My Religion’. All those t-shirts at the MTV Music Awards. While I certainly enjoyed both their time in the underground and the commercial apex of Out of Time and Automatic for the People, for me the band’s peak came right in the middle, right as they straddled these two worlds - in 1986 with Life’s Rich Pageant.

This was the sound of a band doing it all: crunching guitars (‘Begin the Begin’), heart-string ballads (‘Fall On Me’), insightful covers (‘Superman’), with a bit of weirdness (‘Underneath the Bunker’) tossed in for wonderful measure. It was the soundtrack of a summer for me. I listened to it endlessly - on my turntable at home or in the tape deck of the car. Our local college radio station offered up generous portions of Pageant alongside the 10,000 Maniacs, Husker Du, Camper Van Beethoven. Even recently, when the band chose a song from this album to play during their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the opening chords raised the hair on my arms.

It was more the sum of this record than any one particular thing that gripped me. This was the thing with REM: they really were a group. They really were to be taken as a whole. And, as a whole, those early records felt so damn good. The mix of vocals and harmonies, guitar and drums - there was a sense of longing in this I could relate to. There was also a familiar kind of loneliness in their sound. A shadowy ache that they somehow infused with a little light, a little hope.

And light and hope have not always been abundant in my life.

One of the more difficult inheritances of my childhood has been a sense of the world as a dark and threatening place. It is a dangerous place, populated by the lurking promise of doom. It is certainly not a place of light and hope. I suspect there are many reasons for my being held by such forbidding feelings. One of these has been standing out of late.

It’s funny in a ‘ha ha that’s not really funny’ kind of way - if you had asked three years ago, “Were you ever bullied as a kid?” I likely would have shrugged my shoulders and shook my head. “No,” I would have answered. “Not really.” Lately, however, my perspective on this part of my life has changed. It’s like I am seeing familiar events through different eyes; beneath this new focus, what I perceive is far different.

There was a core pack of four or five guys. They were all older than me by a couple years. They were all bigger, rougher. They used to taunt me as I left home and the school grounds. There were names and threats. Rocks were thrown, clumps of sod. I was pushed about, roughed up, robbed. Once, while being chased, I crouched beneath a bush in an effort to hide. At the snap of a twig I turned to find a rifle barrel inches from my face. One of my tormentors bared his teeth behind the stock of that gun. A knuckle whitened on the trigger. I didn’t know it was an air gun at this point. I didn’t know packed earth would soon explode out of its muzzle instead of buckshot. The soil and rock stung as they met my flesh. I can still hear his laughter as he ran away.

But specifics were really not the worst of this. It was the chronic fear, the ongoing dread. It was the heartbeat pounding in my ears as I readied for the run to and from school each day; the edgy panic racing through my veins as legs pumped my way toward safety. Mostly it was the message all of this insinuated into my system, mixed into my bones and blood: this world is not safe.

I notice with disturbing frequency stories like this in the media. An adolescent commits suicide because of such treatment. “Life held such promise for them,” others are sometimes quoted as saying. But this misses the point. Life too often does not hold “such promise” for these kids, not in my experience. Life instead holds sick terror for these children. In the face of this, killing oneself can quite honestly seem a pretty reasonable solution.

I used to hide under my covers at night. Everything pulled tight about my body, this was an attempt to protect myself from the dangers of the surrounding dark. It didn’t work. The winds outside used to terrify me. The loud, brittle rustling of bone-dry Arbutus leaves would ignite a grip in my stomach that resonated through every cell. Laying there rigid with dread and burning with fear, I heard this sound as some kind of threat.

As memories of the above resolve into clearer focus, though, I wonder if threat was really what these leaves, those trees, that wind was offering. Is this this really what the world wants to give a young boy scared beneath his covers, scared pretty much all the time? More and more I have been noticing that I often impose my learned terror where it isn’t really warranted. There was no threat in the phone call I took a few moments ago, though I certainly felt there was. Same with an email that arrived yesterday. A familiar name with a blank subject line; it took me all day to even open the thing. “Hi,” began a friendly note.

So I am wondering about those rustling leaves. Was their message really danger and threat? Or was the world actually reaching out with something more nurturing? Comfort and assurance, perhaps? A gentle, ‘It’s okay’? I have begun to suspect the latter options are more likely the case. Feeling this way, I have wanted to return to the neighborhood of my youth and listen to those leaves again. More accurately, I have felt drawn. It is as if something in me needs to go back there.

But the trees are all gone, long since removed to make way for monster homes and cul-de-sacs. Sure one or two still remain for decorative purposes - leaning lonely in a backyard or over the front walk. For the most part, however, they are no more. Realizing this I feel weight in my heart. Understanding I will never again be able to listen to the exact ‘words’ of those exact trees, never have the chance to discover if I did, in fact, misunderstand all those years ago, I feel tremendous sorrow.

What if the landscapes of our past hold something for us? What if those trees or that rock face or that meadow act as some sort of caretaker, holding childhood parts of ourselves until we are ready to return and reclaim them? I could not hear the world as caring way back when, but perhaps I could today - given the chance. Maybe this is actually something I have to do in order to heal and move on. Quite possibly it is something we all have to do. But when we go back to find the meadow has become another shopping mall and the rock has been ground into gravel, what then?

“You can’t go home again,” the saying goes. Perhaps the transformation of rural wood lots into suburban enclaves is just another reminder of this fact. Like the lines we catch etching our faces. Or a news piece announcing the breakup of a band we haven’t listened to in years.

All day I’ve been singing bits and pieces of REM songs to myself. I think about going over to the turntable and putting on something like Fables of the Reconstruction, but there’s really no need. ‘Rockville’ and ‘Passion’ and ‘Driver 8’ - these songs are so deeply worn into the grooves of my being, it’s as if I have my ipod on random shuffle, as if the battery on this day has endless juice.

Through all this I have been remembering how troubled I was in that long ago time. To be honest, I have been realizing how troubled I remain - for the horrific shadows of childhood still fall long over my life at times, casting everything in awful tones that insist, ‘This world is not a safe place.’ As I’ve been ‘listening’ to Michael Stipe’s mumbled lyrics and Mike Mills’ gorgeous harmonies, as I’ve been ‘hearing’ the shimmer of Peter Buck’s guitar and the heartbeat of Bill Berry’s drums, I have been remembering too the little glimpses of light and hope these four guys from Athens, Georgia brought into my life again and again. Even though my sense then of the darkness being illuminated was muted, I did feel the light in songs like ‘Shiny Happy People’. I did feel the hope and it made a difference. Replaying snippets of ‘Wendell Gee’ as I type, I have been feeling some of these again today. It’s really quite a gift and a wonderful send-off. So for the umpteenth time guys, I give thanks.


Scouring YouTube in search of the perfect song to end this piece I came upon the following live recording of ‘Everybody Hurts’. I had wanted something a little older, to be honest - this originally appeared on 1992’s Automatic For The People. I had also wanted something that included Bill Berry, who to me was an essential part of REM. This clip from 1999 is just wonderful though and surprisingly appropriate given the above. It was written primarily by Berry, so his presence looms large. Enjoy!


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Monday, 19 September 2011

Flesh On Bone

It is an admittedly strange admission for someone who meditates every day, who regularly teaches this practice to others. It is strange but true: I don’t like many of the books I’ve read about meditation. There are exceptions, of course. Minus Buddhist Saints of India - a worthwhile volume, but what an effort! - I have loved each of Reggie Ray’s books. I also enjoyed John Welwood’s Toward a Psychology of Awakening, Will Johnson’s Posture of Meditation, and several of Pema Chodron’s titles. For the most part, though, what I read about sitting practice leaves me cold.

This is not to suggest such texts lack value. I know many find these works insightful and affecting. And for many of us books published under the names Suzuki Roshi and Chogyam Trungpa, to name but two, provide a tangible sense of departed teachers we would not otherwise experience. The number of people who have told me Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism opened a long, transformative relationship with Trungpa’s teachings? I cannot remember.

I am also aware these books can provide both new and experienced practitioners much needed exposure to the view - the conceptual perspectives of a meditative tradition. In many ways as important as practice itself, such exposure cannot be dismissed. So I am certainly not arguing that books on meditation lack value. Instead I am making a very personal confession: In general such books really don’t do it for me. Rather than inspire they leave me asking, ‘What does this have to do with my life?’

Not long ago, for example, I read an article about anger. “When working with anger,” the author began. What followed was a detailed exploration of how anger arises and how we might fruitfully ‘work with’ its visitation. Nowhere in these pages was anger described in any way I was familiar with. At no point did the writer reveal, “I was so angry I could spit,” or “When she looked at me like that I felt my flesh begin to boil.” Anger was more or less presented in the abstract - away from its context and meaning as a feeling that arises in the bump and jostle of everyday experience. It was, I thought, as if we were looking at the emotion in a laboratory setting. Safe. Sterile. Before long, I wanted to throw that magazine across the room.

For me meditation has never really been about laboratory experience. My practice has always seemed at its best when soiled with the dirt and grime of life: when equanimity is destroyed by a frustrating encounter with a computer or when tender-heartedness is cracked open by an unexpected act of kindness. Even in the center of a still and silent shrine hall, what is interesting from my perspective is the sudden appearance of doubt: the unsettling conviction I am the only person doing this practice totally wrong!

In her unusual memoir, I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted, transgendered author Jennifer Boylan writes: “I do have to say that I don’t find gender theory especially helpful in terms of explaining the thing I felt. I resent, to no small degree, the idea that a theory should even be necessary. To be honest, just about the only theory I trust is story and I’m hoping that, before all is said and done, the tale I am trying to tell can stand in for the theory.”

This might be part of what I am trying to get at here. I find a far too significant portion of the reading I’ve done about meditation has a sense of the theoretical about it. The fact that much of it is not - that a large portion of writing on this subject is actually based on direct experience - is somehow lost in presentation. I consequently feel a sense of separation from the everyday, disconnection from its joys and sorrows, as I turn page after page. Which gives rise to that question: ‘What does this have to do with my life?’

In this regard, maybe Jenny Boylan is on to something. Maybe we need more stories in meditative literature. If the ‘theoretical approach’ does not “explain the thing” we feel, if it is not somehow illuminating the stuff of our lives, perhaps we need to use a different mode of presentation. Stories offer depth and texture. They invite us to see and hear, smell, feel, and taste. They immerse us in a richness of being that is affecting, life-affirming. Like I’m Looking Through You, for instance. By the end of that book I felt myself seeped in the often-strangeness of Boylan’s growing up. I had a sense of her experience that seemed tangible and real - and sometimes, honestly, quite surreal.

Which perhaps explains why I enjoy reading Pema Chodron. She often uses stories to bring a sense of life to the teachings, to cast them in a different light. In doing this she really slips under the skin of those who are listening. The resonance of her tales, in fact, commonly outlasts anything else she says, leaving behind a lingering feeling of what she is pointing toward. Who, for instance, can ever forget Chogyam Trungpa and Dilgo Khyentse sitting silently in a garden together. “They call that a tree,” Trungpa says with a gesture. The two men begin to laugh. Pema’s teaching here? Emptiness: things are not what we think.

This ‘story orientation’ certainly contributes to the fact that one of my favorite books is Kathleen Norris’ Amazing Grace. Norris is a late-convert Christian who finds solace in both the worship of her local parish and the Benedictine communities she enters for retreat and renewal. Subtitled A Vocabulary of Faith, Grace presents her consideration of the language of her tradition, of the words she has met and often struggled with since returning to the fold. ‘Christ’ and ‘God’, ‘Fear’ and ‘Hell’ are given attention in these pages, ‘attention’ being the term I use to describe Norris’ attempts to pierce the too-often lifeless shell of inherited orthodoxy in order to find the living, breathing spirit within.

In doing this attending, Norris of course draws heavily upon her impressive experience with Christian practice and study. In looking at the word ‘repentance’, however, she is just as willing to quote John Climacus' The Ladder of Divine Ascent, as she is to draw from her time teaching poetry to school children - both of which she does to wonderful effect. This approach very much reflects a “firm conviction that human beings are essentially storytelling bipeds, and that dictionary definitions of potent religious words, while useful in understanding one’s religious heritage, are of far less importance than the lived experience of them within that tradition.” It seems it is, for Norris, the flesh of life as it hangs from the bones of the teachings that gives her tradition vitality and meaning.

Which brings me again to Reggie Ray. No one I have ever met is able to speak to the subject of meditation with as much communicative intensity. Sitting in a shrine hall while he teaches, the attention of all those assembled feels riveted to the words flowing forth. This effect seems less volitional than responsive - as if our collective focus is simply obeying an implicit command to be right here.

Recently, however, I find my most potent experiences with Reggie occurring outside the formal teaching context, in far more ordinary situations. Sitting around a dinner table, for instance, discussing the scope of his daily involvement in a public meditation retreat then underway he says, “I am not not going to be there.” Not not. Suddenly all the words I’ve ever heard or read about the space of mind fall away. I find myself dropped into that space, awareness moving out in all directions.

Such moments are not well suited to abstraction and theorizing. I suspect, in fact, abstraction and theorizing would effectively strip instants like these of every last bit of their potency. Leaving these moments in life, where they arise, then seems essential in sharing their power. This is something stories have the potential to allow.

I am thinking now of some words written by the eco-philosopher David Abrams in his latest book, Becoming Animal. Of science and technology he says, “Such tools can be mighty useful, and benevolent as well, as long as the insights that they yield are carried back to the lived world, and placed in service to the more-than-human matrix of corporeal encounter and experience. But technology can also, and easily, be used as a way to avoid direct encounter, as a shroud to ward off whatever frightens, as a synthetic heaven or haven in which to hide out from the distressing ambivalence of the real.”

Substitute ‘meditation’ for the words ‘such tools’ and ‘technology’ and you have a sense of how I feel about this practice. Meditation belongs in “the lived world”. It belongs “to the more-than-human matrix of corporeal encounter and experience.” It flourishes and finds meaning in the garden and around the dinner table. It is in these places that meditation most dramatically flexes its transformative muscle and from these places story-telling allows us to speak.

If the majority of writing out there does not immerse the practice in such contexts, in the everyday, then perhaps we need to find a new way of communicating on this subject. Perhaps we must. Because Abrams’ last words carry as much resonance for me as his first: Left abstracted from life, meditation, like science and technology, can easily “be used as a way to avoid direct encounter, as a shroud to ward off whatever frightens, as a synthetic heaven or haven in which to hide out from the distressing ambivalence of the real.” With the world teetering as it is at the present moment - with our inborn brilliance just waiting to shine - avoidance and hiding out, while understandably compelling, just do not seem options.

Let our story-telling begin!


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